State cites smoky cruise ships for air quality violations

Eight vessels receive 10 notices, a fivefold increase from 2007

Posted: Sunday, February 15, 2009

Eight large cruise ships that sailed to Alaska in 2008 were cited for air quality violations.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation issued 10 notices of violations to eight ships. That's a fivefold increase from the two violations for 2007.

The notices went to ships owned by Celebrity, International Shipping Partners, Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America and Royal Caribbean.

Celebrity is owned by Royal Caribbean Ltd., Princess and Holland America are owned by Carnival Corp., and Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line is owned by the Genting Group and Apollo Management.

This year the department took 224 readings, compared to last year's 170. That jump alone doesn't account for the increase in violations found, cruise ship program manager Denise Koch said.

The state's air quality standards come from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, designed to keep people from breathing harmful sulfur and nitrogen compounds and particulate matter.

The department monitors take readings on their own schedule, but they also take readings if people call with complaints about a particular ship.

Every complaint doesn't necessarily result in a violation. But local intel accounted for at least one notice of violation this year: for the International Shipping Partners-owned Clipper Pacific, known as the "Peace Boat" for the big peace sign on its side.

"They are helpful, and the Peace Boat was a good example of that," Koch said. "It was very smoky. We got lots of complaints, and we went out and did a reading."

Juneau hosts the most ships of any Southeast Alaska stop. It's also the place from which the majority of the 36 complaints originated. Last year, 24 complaints were lodged.

Alaska Cruise Association president John Binkley said the violations should be seen as a proportion of all the readings: 10 out of 224.

"We've dropped from an A+ to a solid A," he said, adding that they strive for zero violations.

Could any changes in operations, maintenance or fuel use account for the violations? Binkley said that in initial queries to the cruise lines' joint tech committee, "they don't see any operational changes or any differences in this year versus any other year."

Plumes aren't tested with gadgets, but by how thick they look. The EPA-trained observers are certified to reliably assess the opacity of a smokestack.

The plumes may not be more than 20 percent opaque for more than three minutes in any hour, except when they're casting off or coming into port.

Meanwhile, the ships have their own opacity instruments and video monitors of the plume as it escapes the stack. Cruise lines typically respond to notices of violation with their own data for the date.

Three notices of violations came from EPA-certified opacity-reading kayak rangers who work for the U.S. Forest Service in Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm, Koch said.

Binkley said those ships were maneuvering quickly to avoid ice at the time.

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